29 August 2009

First Trailer for "TUMBLER: the boom"

Here's the first official trailer for our Project Twenty1 film. It was put together by Chris Kapcia, and admirably displays the dickishness of our central character. Enjoy.

27 August 2009

"Where is Spencer?"

As regular readers of this here blog already know, my roommate Chris and I have been hard at work on a film for Project Twenty1. Now that the film is completed and mailed in, and the competition's organizers have informed us that we are officially accepted into the festival and will be up for awards, I can stop holding my tongue and knocking on wood, and can provide you with a bit more background on it and let you know more of its possible future.

The official title for the film is "TUMBLER: the boom." Why does it have a seemingly nonsensical subtitle, you may ask? Because we created our film in concert with another team based in Grand Rapids and Chicago, the highly vaunted Team With No Name, headed by Brilliant in Context repeat offender Anthony E. Griffin. It was this team that I was a member of for the past two iterations of the competition. Their film is entitled "TUMBLER: the echo," and seen together, the two films will, hopefully, tell two sides of one story from separate but similar points of view. We aimed to make them engaging on their own terms, while simultaneously offering further treasures of thematic goodness when seen and/or considered side by side. Both films are dramas told primarily through the possibly unreliable voiceovers of bystanders to the main action.

Have we succeeded? Only time will tell. Both films will play in Philadelphia at the Project Twenty1 Film Festival, October 1st through the 4th. No word yet on which specific day they'll play, but if it's anything like last year's competition, they'll go up on that Sunday, followed by the awards announcements. Our goal wasn't really to win awards (though we certainly wouldn't turn any down), it was to make a film we could be proud of that just might get us a bit more attention for other projects. Together with Team With No Name, we wanted to make a dramatic, compelling, memorable experience for the audience by telling stories we ourselves enjoyed in a way that was fresh and new. Chris and I are happy with the results of "TUMBLER: the boom," and we can't wait to share it with all of you. The fastest way for you to see it, of course, is to attend the Project Twenty1 Film Festival--we're not allowed to distribute it until then. If you can't make it, we may be able to put it up online in the days immediately following.

In the meantime, we'll be working on putting together some promotional materials: trailers, gag reels, posters, promotional art, behind-the-scenes photographs, and the like. Anything we come up with will promptly be posted here and wherever else we can put it up to build buzz and put asses in seats.

See you in Philly.

25 August 2009

I Watched It So You Don't Have To: Leaving Las Vegas

Leaving Las Vegas is a movie about the perils of drinking, but once it's over, the only thing you'll want to do is take a stiff belt of whiskey to make all the bad memories go away. I'm not quite sure that's what the filmmakers intended, but things don't always turn out how you want them to.

The film, if you don't already know by now, is about a raging alcoholic played by Nicolas Cage who gets fired from his job and heads to Las Vegas to drink himself to death. (SPOILER ALERT!) He succeeds. Along the way, he meets with prostitute Elisabeth Shue, and the two fall into an agonizing relationship of give and take, where she does all the giving and he does all the taking. Even though they fall in love with each other, she never really tries to stop him from drinking, and watches as he slowly (so, so slowly) poisons himself to death.

Drink faster!

It came out in 1995, a fact which the film constantly reminds you of through every single painful aesthetic choice it makes. It's not only the wretched bright colors of the era and the dated clothing, it's the wall-to-wall, oppresive soundtrack that will not stop telling you how you should be feeling via lite jazz caterwauling; the glittering effects of the opening credits, which look as trashy as Shue's character; the dreamy editing stuffed full of light flashes, choppy dissolves, and sped-up/slowed down sequences; and, most importantly, the presence of Julian Sands. The King of Creepy Europeans plays Shue's pimp, a refugee from Latveria who abuses her, yet is conveniently killed off by anonymous Russian (?) gangsters so that she can go off and devote all her time to Nicolas Cage's screenwriter.

Outside of the teeth-grinding aesthetic of the movie, the main reason it fails is because I never, not for one instance, bought the relationship between the two of them. It goes something like this: Cage arrives in Las Vegas and hires Shue for the night. She tries to have sex with him, but he's not interested in performing; he just wants someone to talk to. So she lays with him bed and listens to him talk all night, most of which we don't witness. And that's it. From then on, they've made a connection and they're in love. Why do I not believe this? Because the characters remain frustratingly one-dimensional, never becoming more than a stock type pushed to the Nth degree and run through the drama mill. It's the drunk and the hooker with a heart of gold given a movie all to themselves, and no one can do anything more interesting than freak out in a casino because of...I don't know. The alcohol, I guess. We're never given a better reason.

"Wanna see me flip over this table?"

If Nicolas Cage's character were an engaging person, or charming, we might be able to see why she falls for him. But he's not. In their initial scene together, he lays there and mumbles, and there's little-to-no chemistry between the actors to make us believe that they're a match. As it is, she does what she does because if she didn't, it would be a movie about a lone drunk all by himself, and would be even more blackly depressing. She goes so far as to invite him into her home and buy him presents. At that point, I said "Fuck you, movie. Right in your ear."

The movie tries to assuage your doubts by intermittantly cutting to Elisabeth Shue sitting in a room and talking to...her therapist? Herself? Who knows? She's just talking, and the only point of these scenes is to give us a glimpse into her character's mind and background, which somehow fails to develop her more as a human being. In those scenes, she gives us the typical hooker with a heart of gold complaints, and struggles to explain why she felt a connection with Cage. But she can't do it. You know why? Because there isn't one.

Leaving Las Vegas' fakeness stretches even to the look of Nicolas Cage's character. This is a man who gets a lengthy prologue where we see him attempting to maintain his life in Los Angeles while pounding vodka as he drives along the freeway. In one scene, he chugs down a bottle of liquor, causing him to have a violent physical reaction. Once he makes the decision to drink himself to death, he's pretty much all drunk, all the time. How does this massive, almost heroic amount of drinking manifest itself in his appearance? Red rimmed eyes. Occasional sweat and paleness. And that's it.

Of course, if they made him look too awful, then we might be even more disturbed by the already fucking disturbing ending. Throughout the entire film, Shue wants Cage to fuck her as a sign of their love, or something. Cage can never perform, and they have a brief falling out after he stumbles into a casino and brings home some other hooker. Then even more bad things happen to Shue so that she can hit bottom and reconnect with Cage when he's on his last go 'round. They manage to make extremely awkward, extremely out-of-place love in the brief moments before he dies. And then he dies. And then she's sad. And then the movie is blissfully over.

Did Cage deserve to win his Oscar for this movie? I guess so. He sure did seem drunk most of the time. It's a very good performance that doesn't have the writing to elevate it into something great. There certainly are the makings of a grand tragedy here, and given what happened to the author of the novel it's based on, there should be plenty of material to work with. Unfortunately, Leaving Las Vegas never goes much further than "I'm going to drink myself to death! [CONSUMES FIFTH OF GIN] So long world!" Credits.

24 August 2009

I Watched It So You Don't Have To: Sergeant York

Sergeant York tells the inspiring true story of a drunken hillbilly who discovers God and peace, but when World War I breaks out he realizes, "Hey, God don't mind me killin' folk sometimes," and murders himself a mess 'o' Germans to become the most decorated American soldier of the conflict. The AFI declared this to be a good enough reason to place the film 57th on its list of the 100 Most Inspirational American Movies We Decided to Compile So People Would Pay Attention to Us.

This drunken hillbilly.

Right off the bat, let me admit something: Sergeant York is not a bad film. I suspect if an average viewer caught it on TCM on a lazy weekend, they'd find themselves drawn into it and would have difficulty turning away. This is a testament to the superb direction of Howard Hawks and the equally superb editing of William Holmes (he does slip up by obviously repeating some combat shots, which no one seemed to notice enough in 1941 to stop him from winning the Oscar).

Despite these strengths, and despite the fact that it hews pretty closely to the historical record, (SPOILER ALERT! DURF!) Sergeant York is still something of a ludicrous film. What bugged me most is that the scenes set in Alvin York's rural Tennessee, which is to say, most of the film, comes off as Hollywood playing redneck.

Let me explain: Not too long ago, I watched a great documentary, Harlan County, USA, which is set in a similar rural area in nearby Kentucky. In that film, we watch the struggles of real life coal-minin' hillbillies in their strike against a vicious and greedy corporation. They are strong, defiant, and noble, but undeniably poor, and they certainly look it. The film is that much more affecting and inspiring because of it.

In Sergeant York, the main character, who, just to remind you, is a broke-ass hill person struggling to scratch out a living, is played by pretty boy Gary Cooper who, along with most of the supporting cast, looks too damn good to be believable as a hillbilly. Everybody is too clean, their teeth are too white, their makeup is too perfect. It also doesn't help that Gary Cooper was not a particularly good actor, lacking any aspects of what one might call charisma or charm. His Tennessee country accent here is passable, I suppose, but watching him onscreen is like watching robots fuck--it's just not natural. The prettiness of the people reaches some kind of insanity when Joan Leslie pops up as York's love interest. She is incredibly beautiful in this film, almost beautiful enough for me to let it slide on looks alone, but it was always there nagging at my conciousness: "Gee, for someone who's ostensibly led a tough life as a farm girl, she seems fresh and soft." Later on, I felt distinctly creepy for checking her out when the IMDb informed me that she was only 16 when the film was made.

Does that look 16 to you?....Okay, yeah, here she does. But not in the movie itself, I swear.

One of the actors whose performance I did buy was the always lovable Walter Brennan. The man was born to portray the salt of the earth. However, Sergeant York even fucks up the unfuck-upable Walter Brennan by slathering him with garish old age makeup. His obvious wig and thick fake eyebrows make him look like a morbid drag queen who doesn't quite have the right idea. Everytime he made an appearance, I couldn't stop the shivers running up and down my spine.

Kill it! KILL IT!

The first half of the film tells the tale of Alvin York engaging in drunken antics until he is eventually led to the Lord by a combination of a miracle lightning and wanting to get up Joan Leslie's skirt (guess which one was made up by the screenwriters!). To win her affections, he decides to buy himself a piece of "bottomland," which is where the best farming is, apparently, and he works and scrimps and saves, but is eventually foiled. He drowns himself in liquor and goes off for revenge, but the miracle lightning makes him realize the folly of his ways. He forgives those who wronged him, and sets about getting what he wants through more peaceable methods.

Then WWI rolls along, and he gets drafted despite trying to stay out as a conscientious objector. His marksmanship is so stellar, however, that the Army tries to convince him that the Lord actually does want him to kill, if'n' it means providing freedom to oppressed peoples the world over. They let Sergeant York take a furlough to go back home and contemplate their arguments, and he sits on a rock and thinks with his Bible.

Yep. The movie just shows him thinkin' up on a fake mountain, with a glorious backdrop of the sky behind him. Also, his dog is there to provide him company. When the wind randomly turns the Bible to the "Render unto Caesar..." passage, York takes it to mean that he's found a passable loophole, and can go off and fight for democracy. So he does, and thanks to his marksmanship and courage, kills and captures a bunch of Germans and saves the world so that there would be no more wars ever again.

The movie depicts him as, ultimately, a kind and simple man, and I have no doubts that the real life Alvin York was a good and decent man trying to do the right thing. Even when he entered combat, he still wasn't keen on murdering other people, but felt that taking those lives and destroying the German machine gun positions would actually save more lives in the end. What is a gray, messy situation in real life, though, is rendered simple and black and white in the film - killin' Germans is good, because that means God's America wins.

I always wondered how the Germans killed by Alvin York felt about that. Nobody ever makes a movie about one of the people randomly shot up by York, or Audie Murphy, or the Red Baron, or Vasily Zaytsev, or any other war "hero" who knocked off dozens (whether it was justified in some way or not).

Another aspect of history that the film manages to ignore: WWI was bullshit. Yes, yes, most wars are bullshit, but WWI in particular was probably mankind's worst moment of absolute bullshit. It was a bunch of assholes throwing armies at each other because they were assholes. No one had any good reasons for doing it. America told its boys that they were going into the war to preserve freedom and democracy, but that was more bullshit so they'd have warm bodies for the grinder. If it really had been about freedom and democracy, we wouldn't have screwed the pooch on the peace so badly, and then we maybe wouldn't have had to fight WWII, which might be the only really justifiable war in human history.

If the movie had been made at any other time, the filmmakers might have been able to capture that. But America was on the verge of entering WWII, and we needed some rah rah to motivate us to get in and get the job done. Sergeant York succeeded in doing that at the time, but today it's a bit tasteless in its moral equivocating.

17 August 2009

The Boom

Since my last post, we have shot everything we need for our Project Twenty1 film, and Chris and I have been busy editing for the past few days. We have a rough visual cut complete, and now we need to add in the voiceover, music, and credits, all while tinkering with the sound and image to make everything perfect. We are definitely taking this to the very edges of our ten minute time limit. Once it's complete, we'll mail in our finished copy to the good folks at Project Twenty1 (the deadline is Saturday afternoon, but we hope to send it on Friday), who will take it, judge it, and screen it for the entire world at the festival in October. Unfortunately, we won't be able to share the film with you until then, but we hope to create some cool promotional stuff to pimp it to the fans - trailers, posters, behind the scenes footage...that is, if we can find anything where I'm not feverishly cursing behind the camera. I doubt it.

For those of us working in the unique milieu of microcinema, we always hear stories, or have some ourselves, of the projects that never saw the light of day. There are the people who are all talk, of course, those with big dreams who like being described as filmmakers but lack the dedication to actually make a film. Sometimes they may get around to writing some ideas onto paper, or perhaps even complete/commission/find an actual script; but by and large, nothing ever happens. More troubling, however, are the people who do get around to shooting footage, even to the point of completing the film, and then don't do anything with it. I've often heard actors complain about all the work they put into a film, only to have the producers abandon the project at some point and never finish it. If they're lucky, the actors will get some footage to put on their reel.

Why do people give up on all the progress they've made midway through the process? I think it's mainly because editing is so fucking hard, a fact drilled into me every time I do it. When writing, you've got a blank screen and the freedom to throw whatever crazy shit you come up with onto the page. It can be lonely and solitary, but you've got momentum on your side: I'm going to make this happen. Then you shoot the film, and while that can be arduous, you've got other people helping you out; the cast and crew, if they believe in you and the script, or at least tolerate your dumbassedness, can create magic. After that, you're on your own. It's you, the footage, and your computer, and you need to breathe life into the haphazard images you somehow captured.

You start cutting things together, and two things can happen. The first is that everything aligns, you grow happy and satisfied, and you use that energy and strength to plow through the hard parts. The second is that nothing goes together, and you realize you have a lot of worthless footage. Suddenly, the improvisatory shooting style that was so revolutionary when you were filming is now riddled with continuity errors, and the script's abrupt changes in tone don't mesh so well onscreen. So rather than reshoot, which is quite vexing when you have no money, or try to make something worthwhile out of what you have, you give up. The shame and embarrassment of failure trump the passion you felt for the project at the beginning, and it becomes a neglected stepchild, quickly brushed off with a few half-assed excuses whenever it comes up in conversation.

Even when you do have all the footage you need, and it all goes together well (as is the case for our film, thank Christ), editing is more tedious than the other parts of the process, and it turns a lot of people off. Staring at a screen for hours at a time, attempting to match up an arm swing in one cut with the arm swing in another cut, can be soul-crushing for those without the temperment for it. Editing is certainly a creative art, and it can be quite fun, but you have to be extremely precise with it in a way that you don't have to be when writing and shooting (though your film would be much better if you were). Any faults in the footage, no matter how small, glaringly stand out and mock you for your complete lack of competence, and you have to cut around these or try to minimize them so they're not so apparent. The footage taunts you, and you end up creating a second film in your head, the film you would have made if you'd done everything right.

I am eternally grateful to be working with Chris, who's taken the time to, you know, learn how to use an editing program and its bottomless tools and facets, and who has the patience and ingenuity to edit together a coherent and compelling film. I mostly just sit there and offer my thoughts and insights, while he does the actual brutal part of the job. Even when I'm being a stubborn dick and insisting that my opinion, no matter how asisine and ill-thought out, is one hundred percent fact, he tolerates my bullshit, even when he stands his ground.

Once we're done with the film, I'll have time to watch movies again, and plan to embark on a veritable orgy of cinema, overdosing on theaters, DVDs, and DVRs. The list of films I still need to watch and rewatch is long, and maybe I'll even be able to write about a few of them here.

09 August 2009


Last weekend, we received the theme for this year's Project Twenty1 competition: "Key." Somehow, someway, all submitted films must incorporate this theme, whether a character is named Key, whether a person must unlock the heart of his lover, or whether a fat guy eats a bunch of key lime pie. In that time, I managed to write a script, have it thoroughly critiqued by my fellow team members, rewrite it twice, then have it even further examined and poked. Today (technically yesterday now), we shot the grand bulk of the script.

Fuck, I'm tired.

Shortly before the competition began, Project Twenty1's organizers sent out an e-mail full of helpful hints for surviving 'til the end. One of those was to avoid being too ambitious. We knew that lesson already, absorbed it yet again, and continued to write a script that included seventeen scenes at seven different locations. These were basic locations, granted, and we would probably have no trouble securing them. On the other hand...fucking hell, seventeen scenes? Through the magic of movies, we were able to condense some of those locations, until our "official" shooting schedule took us to four separate spots. Two of those spots we will film tomorrow. Two are in the can...

The bulk of the script takes place at one location, and most scenes are confined to one or two shots. That made the early part of the day go quickly. My teammate/roommate, Chris Kapcia, and I bought a brand spankin' new camera, not just for this project, of course, but for all future projects until we eventually upgrade. Nevertheless, we remain largely ignorant of the finer points of cinematography, and don't have much equipment in that area anyway, so we don't spend a lot of time perfecting a shot until it is precisely just so. Normally it's a peek into the viewfinder, then "Looks good to me. Let's roll it." The benefit is that we take much less time to shoot a film than is normal.

We started off well today. Around 9:30, we were on the Pulaski Bridge straddling Brooklyn and Queens and shooting. We got what we needed within forty minutes or so and skedaddled. From there, we went home, ate a fast lunch, and went to the apartment of one of our actors, who had kindly donated her time and her home to our project. We were there for the rest of the day, which ended around 11:30 pm. In the beginning, things went quickly and well, and we were ahead of time. We got behind, however, because I colossally fucked up.

Our new camera came with a new microphone, you see, and this microphone has to be set to "on" independently of the camera. It also runs on its own batteries, so one's natural instinct is to preserve the battery's life by turning the microphone off as often as possible. The problem comes in when one forgets to turn the microphone back on. As a result of my fuckup, we've decided to just leave the microphone on forever, and replace the battery as necessary. It's much easier than having to do reshoots.

Luckily, only one scene had to be reshot. Looking over today's footage, the reshoot is actually better than the original. That does not make me feel any better. I know I will have continuous nightmares about microphones being off when they were specifically turned on mere moments ago, and reels upon reels of golden footage will be rendered useless and lost to time. I will wake up in a cold sweat...if I'm lucky...

In spite of the punishing schedule, and my hapless ass, we managed to pull through because we had an incredibly talented and dedicated cast. These people were amazing in every way. If the film is one iota as good as the fever dreams of my imagination, it will be solely because of their insight, feedback, skills, general awesomeness, etc. etc. We got everything we need today, and now my back, legs, and arms are dully throbbing with achiness and pain, but all I feel is sweet satisfaction.

Watching the footage we shot today, I grew excited over the finished product. "Holy shit," I said to Chris, "we may actually pull this off." Tomorrow is yet another day, but one I look forward to. If we can sustain our momentum and continue to collaborate with such generous and passionate artists...Well, I don't want to speculate, because I fear it will produce bad luck. But so far, we've had a streak of good fortune. Here's hoping it continues at least for a little bit.